The Invisible Man


By Ralph Ellison
The Liberty Paint Factory in Ralph Ellison's " Invisible
Man" provides the setting for a very significant chain of
events in the novel. In addition, it provides many symbols
which will influence a reader's interpretation. Some of
those symbols are associated with the structure itself,
with Mr. Kimbro, and with Mr. Lucius Brockway.
The first of many instances in these scenes that concern
the invisible man and the symbolic role of white and black
in the novel, is when the narrator is sent to the paint
factory by the young Mr. Emerson to try to find a job. Mr.
Emerson, however, only sends him out of pity. The narrator
arrives and immediately notices the huge electric sign that
the reader will learn that Liberty Paint is famous for its
white paint called none other than "Optic White". In
effect, the sign advertises to keep America pure with
whites and not just white paint. Next, the invisible man
must walk down a long, pure white hallway. At this time he
is a black man symbolically immersed in a white world, a
recurring idea of the novel.
After receiving his job, the narrator goes to meet Mr.
Kimbro. In this scene, Kimbro teaches the narrator how to
make the ordinary white paint into "Optic White": Ten drops
of a black formula must be mixed in to the white paint, of
which the surface is already brown. the narrator does not
understand this, and inquires about it, only to be insulted
by Mr. Kimbro. Mr. Kimbro, in no way what so ever, wants
any of his workers to think. He just wants them to obey. So
the invisible man, although still unable to comprehend this
idiosyncrasy, does not persist. the white paint may
represent the white world, perhaps even America, as alluded
to in the company's advertisement. the black formula is
what makes the white paint into "Optic White", a much
better, whiter, white. the formula, perhaps, represents the
behind the scenes blacks that worked for the whites so that
society persisted as it did in that time period. This idea
will be touched upon once again later on in this series of
The invisible man then falls victim to a bad set of
circumstances. He runs out of formula, and since Kimbro is
not around, he tries to get himself some more. However,
there are two containers with what appear to be the same
kind of formulas, just with different markings. Naturally,
the narrator uses his intuition and discovers that the two
liquids in the tanks smell differently, and one smells like
the formula he was using. He gets more of that solution,
and continues his work, only to be scolded later by Kimbro
that he chose the wrong one. Once again, Kimbro states that
he does not want any thinkers working for him. He wants a
submissive black that will just follow the "rules"
established in his "society". After fixing his mistake, the
narrator is sent back to the office to find another
position: Kimbro does not want the invisible man working
for him. In the scene that follows, the invisible man meets
Mr. Lucius Brockway, deep down in the paint factory.
Mr. Brockway, a black man, can be thought of a symbol
himself. He is the black formula that makes the white paint
work. He is one of the many blacks that keep the paint
factory working. He is one of the many blacks that keep
society as the whites like it. Mr. Brockway makes the
powder that is the base of the paint. Again, a black
influence that makes the "Optic White" paint possible
appears. When the narrator returns from getting his lunch,
he is confronted by Mr. Brockway about the union. it is
here that the reader learns that the blacks that, in
effect, run the paint factory, are being hired so that the
company does not have to pay union wages. This is important
because it shows that the blacks are once again being taken
advantage of by the whites, yet they are still working
behind the scenes to make things run like clockwork.
Through out this commotion, the narrator has not been
fulfilling one of his duty by watching the pressure gauge.
the pressure builds up, and right before the narrator has a
chance to turn it off, it explodes. Once again, he is a
black man immersed in a world of white. This explosion
leaves him in the factory hospital. In the hospital, he is
given electroshock therapy. After the "doctors" are
convinced that he is "cured," (i.e. he can not remember a
thing), he is then given a name and is sent on his way
after signing a release and being given some money. Once
again, the whites are taking advantage of the blacks.
All of these events, besides being highly important on a
symbolic level as explained, also contribute to the rest of
the novel. The college is a perfect example of a parallel
environment. Dr. Bledsoe only wants the narrator to please
the whites, with out question. and because the narrator did
not, he ended up getting kicked out, just like in the paint
factory. Also, the Brotherhood provides another parallel.
They only want the blacks to work for the Brotherhood's
causes, and not for the individual member's needs. For
example, Brother Wrestrum accused the narrator of using the
Brotherhood to attain his own needs, and the narrator was
put on a kind of probation for it, so that the matter could
be investigated.
In a way, the Liberty Paint Factory is a microcosm of
America. There are blacks and whites. However, on the
surface both appear to be white and right. In effect, it is
really the blacks that work behind the scenes to make
things flow. They are taken advantage of, and controlled by
ideas put into their heads. the paint factory itself, Mr.
Kimbro, and Mr. Lucius Brockway all help portray this image
to its fullest, while contributing to the rest of the novel.


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